Entertainment Book Reviews

Saturday 30 August 2014

The Protestant businessmen who gave hope to Dublin's destitute

Peter Somerville Large, Mary Daly and Colin Murphy, Foxrock Media; hdbk,€19.99, 316 pages

Eamon Delaney

Published 12/07/2014 | 02:30

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Man on Mount Street Club's farm
Step Back In Time: Poor living conditions persisted in Dublin city centre after the Second World War, as witnessed here in Macken Street in 1962

It is difficult now to appreciate just how bad poverty was in Ireland in the recent past, especially in Dublin. In the capital, at the time of the First World War, children could be seen barefoot around the city centre and Georgian tenements were filled with the poor.

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Successive governments tried to address the problem with slum clearances and by transferring people to new housing estates that were in the suburbs.

However, despite such developments, the tenement population remained high, not least because Catholic teaching forbade the use of contraception.

The city had few job opportunities and, with the onset of the global Great Depression, things got even worse. Emigration had always offered a way out for Irish people living in poverty, but with foreign opportunities closed off, the situation festered at home.

In 1934, surrounded by such crippling poverty, a group of prominent Dublin business people decided to address the torpor by setting up an unemployed men's club – The Mount Street Club – which would create solidarity and hope and allow the unemployed men to earn "tallies", which they could exchange for food, clothing, fuel or furniture.

It was very successful and at its peak, during the Second World War, the club had 6,000 members working at its premises in Mount Street, on its farm in Clondalkin, in its garden allotments in Merrion and Sydney Parade (which still survive to this day) and elsewhere.

The club was revolutionary in proving that men from the slums could make a constructive contribution to society and it helped many of them gain employment.

With more than 150 photographs and documents of interest, this handsome hardback book gives an insight into this largely forgotten part of our recent social history.

The club was mainly created by civic-minded Protestants in an example of the philanthropy of this community but also of the Protestant dominance of the Irish business world, which would continue right up until the 1960s.

The club itself was non-sectarian, which was a tricky matter, given the Catholic Church's control over so many aspects of social life, especially in the charitable area, as well as sensitivity about supposed evangelical conversion.

Having found a suitable premises in Mount Street, the businessmen named it ironically after the salubrious Kildare Street Club, the gentlemen's club on St Stephen's Green, of which many of the Club's supporters were also members.

This showed a healthy sense of humour, but also a recognition that even behind the city's most prestigious locations lay some of its most notorious hovels.

By the time of the Second World War, the club was helping thousands of unemployed men.

Some of the club's aims were similar to what was happening with government schemes, both in Ireland and the UK, but it was unique in that it was entirely independent, private and self-sustaining.

The unemployed men who were in the club were at the centre of things, and not just figures of dependency.

Through co-operation, men from the tenements of Dublin were able to work the land and cut turf, just as Eamon de Valera might have dreamed, and hundreds of unskilled workers were ably occupied.

It is no surprise that the success of the club played a part in inspiring the kibbutz commune system in Israel and also attracted the attention of William Beveridge, who later developed Britain's welfare system.

Here at home, the State operated a sort of paternalistic conservatism and regarded such independent projects as the club as somewhat alien and supplementary.

The Mount Street Club continued into the 1970s and 1980s when it aided many start-up businesses and training schemes for the unemployed.

Especially interesting is Colin Murphy's account of the club's creation of an Irish Nautical Trust in the Ringsend area, where locals reclaimed and renovated the Grand Canal basin where their parents had once laboured and thrived as dockers.

In 2006, the Club was incorporated as a Trust and today it still works on projects that give support to those affected by unemployment in the wider Dublin area.

With all the recent, and forthcoming books, on our so-called 'national struggle' and endless gun battles, how delightful and interesting to have a slice of social history, and one about a topic that this reader, like many of us, knew little about.

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